JUUL, the manufacturer of the sleek, flash drive-esque nicotine vaporizers that are becoming an epidemic in schools nationwide, made headlines when they agreed to restrict the sales of mango, cucumber, and creme flavored JUUL pods in their latest effort to reduce adolescent use of their product. It is the latest promise in a long line of changes that the company is making to comply with the FDA’s crackdown on teen nicotine use. JUUL’s strategy looks good on paper: they’ve pledged $30 million over the next three years on independent research and community engagement, are working with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and his group of public health officials and tobacco experts, and have even amended their marketing and social media code to “not feature images or situations intended for a youth audience”. These brand promises are flashy (JUUL’s website advertises their youth prevention efforts on a banner almost as large as the one that reads “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.”) and seemingly responsible. Yet JUUL doesn’t really care about reducing teen vaping. Teens are JUUL’s main demographic, and they don’t want to lose the lifelong customers they’ve already created.
It’s simple economics: teens across the country are buying JUULs, and JUUL is profiting from it. A 2017 study by the Truth Initiative Schroeder Institute discovered that 10 percent of young adults have used a JUUL in the last 30 days. Assuming that there are approximately 42 million people in the United States between the ages of 13 and 19, that means that JUUL products are used by over 4 million teenagers per month. If just 10% of these individuals actually buy replacement pods on a monthly basis, JUUL receives a conservative $6,400,000 in revenue per month — and $76,800,000 yearly — from their teenage customers.
JUUL knows the value of its teenage demographic and is only pledging to change in order to maintain brand appearance. JUUL’s marketing activities have always focused on young adults, investing in social media advertising featuring young, hip looking models and catchy hashtags like #JUULmoment. The advertising was also purposefully misleading; 63% of underage JUUL users were unaware that JUUL products always contain nicotine. Even JUUL’s chemical formula is designed to be attractive to young buyers: their patented nicotine salts release the drug in a smooth, satisfying way compared to cigarettes and other vaporizer brands whose sharp and bitter entry would turn off non-smokers. Additionally, JUUL’s decision to stop selling flavored pods at retail stores initially appears to decrease their product’s accessibility, yet over 52% of teens reported getting their JUULs from a social (non-retail) source and 6% received their products online. JUUL has created a dependency among teens and is completely aware that they don’t need to walk into a retail store in order to get their hands on their products.
JUUL understands the value of its teenage customers. They’ve crept into teen culture, promoting the cool, fun, stylish activity of “JUULing”. They purposely targeted GenZ through social media advertising, getting an entire generation hooked on their nicotine salts. To JUUL, teens represent a number — a number that is much larger than the amount they’ve pledged to spend to reduce teen vaping. JUUL’s efforts at curbing teen use are cursory at best and contradictory at worst. As far as I’m concerned, their teen-health headlines do nothing but blow smoke.